Material Focus: MDF | Medium Density Fibreboard

MDF board bookshelf

What is MDF?

Traditionally, MDF is made by breaking down softwood into wood fibers in a defibrillator, mixing it with wax and synthetic resin binders such as urea-formaldehyde resins (UF) or other suitable systems, and forming panels at high temperatures and pressure.

MDF is considered a better substitute for plywood in cutting down the hardwood or softwood residuals. It is high in strength and density compared to the particle board. Due to its cost-effective and versatile property, it is used to the maximum in any project.

MDF used for Interior Decor Panels | Image Credits: Zarra Panels

Depending on the material composition MDF boards vary in color, density, texture, etc., Contemporary manufacturing of MDF includes a variety of raw materials like scrap, bamboo, recycled paper, polymers, carbon fibers, glass, and sawmill off-cuts. Industries have started using sustainable products for the manufacture of MDF boards with the help of non-toxic binders.

Although MDF is highly toxic when manufactured, it does not emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) when used. It is highly recommended due to its physical properties like stiffness, density, and the fact that it can be machined easily. It is suitable to make sharp edges as it is void making it impossible to tear out. As MDF is well damped, it is acoustically suitable for speaker enclosures.

Features and Applications of MDF

Due to its ease of flexibility and smoothness, MDF can effortlessly be cut, shaped, and painted based on the type of furniture. As it is manufactured by extremely pressing the large steel plates, the finish of the material is perfectly flat and smooth, which makes the surface suitable for painting, and attaching veneers or laminates.

They are available in varied thicknesses ranging from 2 mm up to 60 mm. Although the durability of the material can not be compared with solid wood, it proves to be stronger than engineered wood.

Ornate MDF interior panels
The ornate MDF panelling that has been Duco-painted white reinforces the mood created by the Radha Krishna wallpaper | Image Credits: Photographix India / Aaditya Kulkarni for O’nest Interiors

MDF board has been commonly used for manufacturing a diverse range of furniture. It is flexible enough to be combined with other materials like metal, glass, corkboard, etc. for better workability. Most furniture companies also opt for MDF boards as they are suitable for mass production.

They can be seen in the form of bookshelf and TV furniture as they’re both aesthetic and cost-effective. They are also used in several interior works such as doors for cabinets, door frameworks, shelves also in laminate flooring. Due to their better noise absorbing quality, MDF boards are deployed by speaker companies and in spaces like newsrooms, conference or meeting rooms, etc.

Using MDF in Construction: The Challenges and Opportunities

Pros

  • Sheets remain smooth once they have been cut to size, unlike solid wood or plywood which can cause splinters or voids due to natural knots and grains.
  • Widely used as it is cost-effective compared to real wood.
  • Smooth finish perfectly suitable for applying paints.
  • Versatile; can be easily shaped or molded as desired.
  • Though vulnerable to moisture, the application of a high-quality wood sealant or moisture-resistant paint can make MDF resist a humid atmosphere.

Cons

  • Does not have a natural aesthetic look unlike solid wood or plywood
  • Absorbs the paint applied on its surface, hence should not be combined with solid wood or plywood.
  • Easily vulnerable to spaces exposed to water, thus can get soaked and lose its structural properties.
  • Require additional frame support to take the load.
  • Proper precautions are needed due to the VOC content that sticks the particles together.
  • Regular woodworking tools can damage the material.

Material Sustainability Quotient: How Does MDF Fare?

MDF is the residual obtained from leftover shavings and wood chips. This is the best example to recycle waste materials from sawmills. However, the sustainability of MDF depends on the type of binder that is used to stick the particles together. Using these synthetic adhesives makes the material non-biodegradable, and some glues produce toxic gases that harm the environment.

Based on various stages of manufacturing MDF let’s figure out its construction sustainability value. The primary process of sourcing the raw material is nothing but collecting the waste materials from sawmills. But the process of compressing the material together might involve huge machinery which influences the carbon footprint.

MDF and plywood for paneling
The back panel and shelves were constructed on-site from MDF and plywood and painted with white PU paint | Image Credits: Pulkit Sehgal for Ka Kha Ga Design Studio

In addition to this, various stages of transporting involve a lot of energy from sawmills to material factories, delivering the finished products to stories. It is preferred to use eco-friendly binders to increase the sustainable value of the material.

Overall, with appropriate safety measurements and several other advantages, MDF can be an all-rounder in the construction industry.

Amodini Allu
Amodini Allu

Amodini discovered her love for writing while working as an Editorial intern for an architectural platform, and runs a blog about life through the eyes of an Architect.

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